In Hollywood movies, surfing is basically dealt with in one of two ways. It can serve as the foundation for the film, as in movies like Blue Crush (2002) and In Godâ€™s Hands (1998), where trite and forgettable plots are simply window dressing to advance the bright blue visuals. Alternately, it can be used as a background vehicle, as in Big Wednesday (1978) and Point Break (1991), where the movie isnâ€™t about surfing â€“ itâ€™s about surfers. The sport is used to explain an underlying connection between several of the characters, but itâ€™s not really used to advance the plot in any particular way. I much prefer the latter method (Big Wednesday is a great film, and Point Break is harmless fun), but the best surfing youâ€™ll ever see on film is when thereâ€™s no other point to the film than to show the surfing itself.
Obviously pure surfing films are a niche market, with virtually none seeing a wide release into major theaters and only a few occasionally penetrating art house theaters in recent years. Surf films are more like documentaries, watched by dedicated practitioners, but rarely emerging from obscurity to reach a wider audience. The godfather of all surfing films, The Endless Summer (1966), established the style that has persisted since its release, where surfing footage is strung together over music. Itâ€™s this style that is employed brilliantly in Andrew Kidmanâ€™s Litmus (1997), where a series of low-fidelity sequences transcend the more recent high-energy surf-punk efforts of filmmakers like Taylor Steele to generate a more artistic end product, a relaxed montage that captures the tranquil joy of surfing that is harder and harder to obtain as waves become more crowded with each passing year.
The Film: Litmus
The Song: “Listen, the Snow Is Falling”
The Artist: Galaxie 500
Who’s Who: Litmus was created by author, artist, musician, and freelance photographer Andrew Kidman. Though online details on the filmmaker are scarce, Kidman originally hails from Australia and developed the film with fellow Val Dusty Experiment members Jon Frank and Mark Sutherland. The footage for Litmus was taken during a globe-spanning trip that saw them chasing waves in Australia, South Africa, Ireland, California, and Hawaii. Kidman currently performs with the Brown Birds of Windy Hill, a band based in New South Wales. In his own words, he chose the title â€œLitmusâ€ because to him it represents change.
The surfer featured in this sequence is Derek Hynd, an Australian boardsmith whose exploits in creating new shapes and resurrecting old designs have become the stuff of legend. Through the sequence, Hynd rides on a series of different boards in varying conditions at Jeffreys Bay in South Africa. The famous cold-water break, arguably the best in the world, is located on the west coast of South Africa, receiving waves generated by Antarctic storms. The town of Jeffreys Bay essentially exists due to the endlessly long, perfectly wrapping waves of Supertubes and the surfers that flock to the area to experience them.
Galaxie 500 was a band whose relatively short lifespan from 1986 to 1991 resulted in three albums. Their atmospheric dream pop, which saw limited commercial success, nonetheless has influenced a surprisingly large number of subsequent acts. The song featured in this sequence is a cover of a song originally composed and performed by Yoko Ono.
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Why it Works: It’s no accident that the image of of Derek Hynd riding his 5’8″ fish is featured on the cover of the DVD – it’s the best sequence in the film, and arguably the most beautiful surfing montage that’s ever been produced. Other than mentioning that the youtube rendering does some weird things to a few sections where the film is intentionally blurred, I’ll let the film speak for itself.
What Goes Wrong: While it’s a nice interlude from the surfing footage, Derek Hynd’s stoned ruminations on feminism are absolute nonsense. What the hell is he babbling about?
Other Stuff: While a number of professional football players have made successful transitions into careers as actors (Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson), few athletes from other sports have been embraced by Hollywood. Occasionally, champion surfers will make appearances in films, often as themselves. There were numerous cameos of women surfers in Blue Crush, and Kelly Slater appeared briefly in One Night at McCool’s (2001) as “guy in jeep.” Laird Hamilton was given the opportunity to play the villain in North Shore (1987), but by far the most memorable appearance by a surfer in a mainstream film was Gerry Lopez’s joyful turn as Arnold’s sidekick in Conan the Barbarian (1982).